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Advantage Britain?

February 20, 2007

Pretty much as soon as first I set foot in a theatre in this country about a decade ago, I listened to American actors and students of acting kvetching about their inferiority to their British counterparts. People would hear my British accent in grad school and start going off about how great British acting programs are and how wonderful British actors are and wouldn't it be great if American actors could just be even fractionally as accomplished as actors in the UK. A few years later, when I was researching my book of interviews with UK and US actors, On Acting, several of the actors interviewed for the book talked in a similar fashion. I found it very off-putting. The same attitude has prevailed in conversations I've had on this theme ever since.

It's a shame that the media isn't helping the case for American acting at all. In an article in the LA Times a couple of days ago, critic Charles McNulty wrote a diatribe against American actors, calling British actors superior. Several months ago I read a similar piece published by Reuters in which in which actress Ellen Burstyn complained about slipping standards in US acting compared to in Britain. Thank goodness John Heilpern, writing in The New York Observer last June, stuck his chin out and complained about the unhealthy strain of Anglophilia in New York theatrical circles. But I'm not all that surprised about his voice of dissent: after all, Heilpern's a Brit like me.

The idea that British actors are somehow superior to American actors is completely erroneous. I guess it's part of a more general malaise and worthlessness that the New World feels about its talents vis-a-vis the Old World, but I've come to believe that this attitude isn't useful for the US acting community (as well as for foreign perceptions of American acting) at all.

As a theatre critic in San Francisco (and someone who sees theatre in New York, Chicago and LA too), I experience tremendous performances here all the time — and not just in plays by American playwrights. For example, I don’t think I have ever seen better interpretations of the lead characters in Moliere’s The Miser and Shakespeare’s As You Like It than those created by actors in US companies Theatre de la Jeune Lune and California Shakespeare Theatre respectively. There have also been great performances by American actors in movies too of late. Forrest Whitaker's in The Last King of Scotland and Meryl Streep's in The Devil Wears Prada, both of which McNulty mentions in his article, are cases in point.

I'd like to understand what lies underneath the American inferiority complex with regards to British actors for acting is alive and well in the US and deference to the UK does nothing but undermine the local talent. So there.

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